You probably remember this one from history class: Thomas Paine, in 1776, dashed off a pamphlet called Common Sense, encouraging the American colonists to revolt against British rule, with the pamphlet supposedly proving so popular that, in its first three months of publication alone, it sold more than 100,000 copies. Also, it helped kick off a war.
Paine himself, it turns out, was the primary source of information regarding those astounding sales figures. If we take him at his word, then Common Sense remains the bestselling book in U.S. history. Stephen King can’t unseat it. Dan Brown? Can’t compete. Danielle Steele? GTFO! But what’s all this got to do with you, one more aspiring, ink-stained wretch, vainly attempting to build your author platform today, some 250 years later?
Paine faced the same problem that you and I face. He and his fellow “pamphleteers” couldn’t rely on Buzzfeed and the New York Times to deliver up an audience. They had to discover it for themselves. Yes, the audience was there, in abundance, but to reach it, they basically had to start a Substack.
I’m not the first to notice the overlap between the pamphleteers of the 18th century and popular present-day mediums. For better or for worse, some 20th-century political operatives not only ran the same play as Paine—bypassing media outlets and instead mailing their messages directly to their would-be audiences—but wrote entire self-aggrandizing books about the strategy. They understood the power of building one’s own means of distribution, one’s own mailing list. In fact, “direct mail” was, arguably, how the right bankrolled the Reagan revolution. It’s how Karl Rove got his start.
Yesterday’s pamphlets and mail packages closely resemble today’s email newsletters. And now, in related news, just about every big tech company is announcing that they’re getting into the newsletter game, too. Both Facebook and Twitter are launching newsletter products, while the CEO of Medium recently declared the platform is pivoting from magazines to focusing on “individual voices,” i.e. newsletter-like offerings. Substack has even started paying six-figure advances to established writers they believe have the power to draw large numbers of paid subscriptions.
And you? If you haven’t already started your own newsletter, you’re probably mulling it, just seeing how everyone else is doing it.
Which brings us to the #1 thing writers need to know about newsletters
Even as you and I are witnessing this 2021 crush of both tech companies and individual writers into the newsletter game, it’s crucial to understand that these developments are not new. (Neither are the, uh, sometimes-controversial politics.)
The difference is how newsletters are being reshaped by the internet and related trends in the larger economy, namely:
- The continued move of advertising dollars away from traditional media and into Facebook and Google, which allow for much more specific ad-targeting;
- How this is pushing heavyweights including the New York Times and Washington Post to rely more and more on subscriptions, rather than advertising, as their primary source of revenue;
- The overall rise of the “subscription economy,” in which you and I and everyone else on the planet pay a few bucks each month for access to all manner of media, services, and products, from Amazon Prime to Netflix to diapers—really, we could keep listing things all friggin’ day.
It’s a complex reality, but writers like us will misunderstand it, or attempt to ignore it, at our own risk. You don’t need to grasp the more intricate details, anyway, beyond the fact that Wall Street loves recurring revenue (i.e. subscription-business models, which give a lot of insight into a company’s financial performance), plus the other salient fact: You and I are on our own, here.
In a sense, all writers are “direct to consumer” brands now. Major publishers, from Slate to Simon & Schuster, are relatively risk-averse, reluctant to invest in anything but proven winners. Whereas it’s easier than ever, if also a very crowded scene, to build and reach your own audience through channels such as Instagram, or better yet, your own email newsletter. Picture yourself standing by the side of a choked digital freeway, holding up a little hand-scrawled sign that reads “Drop your email here, and I’ll come to your inbox with tips and updates!!”
Believe me, I don’t love this reality, either. All this self-promotion feels awful, much of the time, but what’s the alternative? Besides, at least we enjoy some advantages over Thomas Paine, even Karl Rove. Building your own email list is free, in the money sense if not the time one. You don’t need a cool $2 million for the printer, and another couple mil for lawyers, editors and red pens. As may you know, Edgar Allan Poe, working in the decades before the Civil War, dreamed of launching his own magazine. He never could get it off the ground, though—couldn’t lock down the venture capital he needed. You and I are better off. It’s a matter of compiling some addresses and hitting “send.”
The reason an email list beats every other kind of following
I keep focusing on email and email lists, rather than Twitter followers or YouTube subscribers, because email addresses are the marketing gold standard, widely understood to be more valuable than social-media counts. I know this as a nonfiction writer who’s spent the last decade working a day job in email marketing. But look further out, and the questions answer themselves: Why else would all these avaricious titans of industry be piling in? Why would big-name writers be launching newsletters?
It follows that your own email list is most likely more valuable to you than any other kind of following of similar size, no matter whether your newsletter is free or if you offer paid subscriptions, and no matter if your list remains quite limited. Even a small email list is better than no list at all, because it likely represents your most devoted, true fans, and even one of those (your mom) is better than none. You can then use your list to share your work and drive clicks to any published pieces, whether fiction or nonfiction.
So, how can you get started, if you’re starting from scratch?
5 ways to get started today
- Hit up your friends, family, neighbors and coworkers, and any followers you may already have on your Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, etc. Ask them nicely to sign up and support you.
- Put the link to your newsletter in your email signature.
- In your newsletter, write about topics that might interest people beyond your immediate circle, and make it easy for Google to find your articles via strongly worded titles.
- Publish part of your newsletters to Medium (or similar sites), hoping folks will follow a link to read the rest, and then sign up.
- If you can afford it, you can even buy ads for your newsletter in other, popular newsletters. (For more on that, check out this interview with the writer of “Deez Links.”)
Lastly, let’s address the elephant in this room. A few years ago, all of us were hearing that we need to “start a podcast.” Let me go on the record here: I don’t think this advice to launch your own newsletter will prove as fleeting. Likewise, I don’t think publications’ and tech companies’ push into newsletters is yet another desperate pivot with a two-month shelf life.
Newsletters are an older medium than most writers—or most people, period—understand, one that has stood the test of time, proving monetizable through multiple centuries. It’s true the space is getting crowded. The best time to start was 10 years ago, or even yesterday. But the next best time is now.
Catherine Baab-Muguira’s debut, Poe for Your Problems: Uncommon Advice from History’s Least Likely Self-Help Guru, was published by Hachette in September 2021. She also writes a free email newsletter called Poe Can Save Your Life, packed with darkly inspiring self-help tips for writers and other creatives. Check it out here.